Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti, by Michael Deibert (Seven Stories Press, ISBN 1-58322-697-4, 455 pp)
How you react to Michael Deibert’s book about Haiti will depend on what you think about Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian ex-president who has spent the last two years languishing in South Africa. If you think Aristide was a flawed saint who tried to put the interests of the poor above the interests of the rich, this book will enrage you. If you think that Aristide was a crook who set the Haitian democratic movement back by a generation, then Deibert is your man.
Aristide was twice president of Haiti, and both times was overthrown. His first term (1991–96) was won with a big majority, but was rudely interrupted after a mere seven months by General Raoul Cédras’s military coup. He was reinstalled in 1994 by Bill Clinton and twenty thousand US troops, but his remaining sixteen months were bedevilled by the deal he made with the Americans to secure his return. His second term (2001–6) was bedevilled by political deadlock, financial blockade, and gang violence. It ended prematurely in February 2004, as a makeshift army marched on Port-au-Prince and the Americans whisked Aristide away into exile.
That the Aristide years promised much, delivered little, and disappointed many is beyond dispute. But there is plenty of dispute about why. For documenting those years is a nightmare: every source is partisan. What you conclude depends on who you talk to and what you are inclined to believe.
Michael Deibert is an American journalist who first visited Haiti in 1997 and worked there for the Reuters news agency at the height of the stalemate and frustration (2001–3). That doesn’t quite make him the “veteran journalist” of the back cover blurb —?he only turns 33 this year, and saw nothing of Aristide’s first term. His 435-page text is an exhausting read; it becomes more depressing and distressing as horror is piled on horror. By far the most vivid sections are those based on his first-hand experience. But there are long stretches when Deibert was absent from Haiti and has to rely on secondary sources: here he tends to pile report upon report until the reader can’t see the wood for the trees. X was gunned down, Y’s body was found, it was believed that . . .
Deibert approves of Aristide’s AIDS education programme, but otherwise hardly has a good word to say about the ex-president. His main focus is the violence and corruption that occurred on Aristide’s watch, which he claims was Aristide’s direct and personal responsibility. There lies the key problem with the book. To make a plausible leap from murderous reality on the streets to the person ultimately responsible for it requires solid testimony: who gave instructions to whom, and to do precisely what? Innuendo and implication, allegation and speculation, are not enough for such a grave matter. But they are what the book’s argument is based on. Deibert produces enough passion to make a jury suspicious, but not enough hard evidence for a conviction beyond reasonable doubt.
Deibert’s main handicap is that he is in love with Haiti. Or, rather, with a version of Haiti. He rhapsodises about the “ache within me”, about market women, peasants on donkeys, vast mountains, bullet-dodging, “the solarising brightness of Cité Soleil”, “walking through the night with a girl”. “Haiti will hang,” he concludes, “like a tear, like a rough-hued diamond on the ocean, and its mountaintop fastness, quiet valleys, and exhaust-choked city lanes will say, ‘This is where we were.’”
A journalist in love with his subject has to be careful about maintaining his professional scepticism and objectivity, and this Deibert finds hard to do. In fact he doesn’t even try very much. His thesis is single-minded: Aristide betrayed the Haiti which Deibert loves; all trails lead back to the president in person. Anyone associated with Aristide becomes a target of Deibert’s wrath: the Congressional Black Caucus, credulous journalists, Caricom in general and Jamaica’s P.J. Patterson in particular, Noam Chomsky, Thabo Mbeki, the Haitian bourgeoisie, Aristide supporters and sympathisers, conspiracy theorists, sundry liberals and leftists, lawyers and PR people, and anyone who ever thought Aristide might be good for Haiti.
The tone is set by a prologue describing government forces breaking up the funeral of a political activist. The distinguished Haitian film-maker Raoul Peck, who turned politician during René Préval’s 1996–2001 presidency to serve as minister of culture, contributes an introduction. He too plunges right in, speaking of Aristide’s “violent quest for power”, his “apparatus of repression”, his “primitive racism”, and the supposedly spontaneous uprising that supposedly united everybody against him in the end, after the “years of terror”.
That is where Deibert is coming from, and what his annoyingly apocalyptic title refers to. The “struggle” is to wrest Haiti away from the Aristide gang and Fanmi Lavalas. The 2004–6 interim government worked quite hard on that.
Haiti combines poverty and corruption with a propensity for violence, an “imperial presidency”, and an extraordinary capacity for stoic resistance and messianic expectation. It is subject to endless feuding and scheming over colour and class, and constant meddling from outside. This lethal combination has produced a grotesque procession of tyrants and despots rather than stable institutions.
Yet, reading Deibert, you might almost assume that Aristide introduced violence to Haiti, so cursory is his exploration of the political culture and the realities which any Haitian leader has to deal with.
When he first won the presidency, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a priest, a member of the Salesian order. He had arrived back in Haiti while Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was still in power. A classic expression of what in South America was called “liberation theology”, he had studied psychology, philosophy, and (significantly) eschatology, spoke Spanish and Hebrew, and understood radio, having worked at a Port-au-Prince radio station. He was charismatic, controversial, provocative, and the urban poor of the Haitian capital warmed to him as a new messiah.
But a priest carrying such baggage cannot plausibly tell the poor to bear their suffering patiently because they will be rewarded in another life. All human beings, the world now thinks, have some right to happiness in their mortal lives. And if, in pursuit of that right, you have already turned the other cheek and had your jaw broken; if you have forgiven your oppressor seventy times seven and he still slashes your throat; what then? Aristide’s congregation was shot up, his church burned down; and he was persuaded that if the cause of the poor was really to be advanced, a pulpit in a Port-au-Prince slum was not going to be enough: it had to be done from the National Palace.
Aristide saw mass mobilisation as a weapon against the forces which kept so many poor and miserable: the army, the mulatto elite, the presidency, the Tontons, the attachés. He must have known that the price would be terrible, but perhaps calculated that the end would justify the means. Hence the emphasis on empowerment in his early sermons, mixed with that sinister hint of incitement that characterised his oratory before the church managed to silence him.
But Deibert is not inclined to allow Aristide even his idealism. He assumes that the young priest was power-mad from the start, and in a few years became a killer, a drug trafficker, a gang lord, a man as violent and corrupt as the Duvaliers and the generals.
If true, that would be a fascinating process, crying out for examination. But while Deibert documents in exhaustive detail Aristide’s political mistakes, he shows no interest in the way idealism might harden into violence and terror. Despite his time in Haiti, he never actually talks to Aristide: he doesn’t get anywhere nearer than a press conference. He doesn’t even cultivate sources who might really know what was happening inside the presidential head. So Aristide remains a shadowy figure throughout the book, easy to demonise, impossible to understand.
There is a further dimension to this problem. In a 435-page narrative containing scores of grave allegations against Aristide, only 53 of the author’s assertions are sourced, mostly to other media or public documents. Deibert casually says things like “Perhaps the cut that Gustave Flaubert arranged for Aristide to get from the enterprise was too attractive to resist” (p 207), or “under Aristide’s direct command, government forces stormed Roboteau . . . in an attempt to capture or kill Butteur Metayer and Jean Tatoune” (p 355), or “the cocaine trade had exploded in Haiti under Aristide, and its trail led directly to the National Palace” (p 314).
This goes directly to the issue of credibility. Is it simply Deibert’s own opinion that Aristide received kickbacks, personally commanded bloody military operations, and directly dealt in cocaine? Or does he have evidence — in which case why doesn’t he produce it? Most of Deibert’s interviewees are Aristide opponents; there are detailed accounts of meetings at which Deibert himself was clearly not present. Yet the “veteran journalist” has no reservation about reaching a verdict:
Seldom has a leader betrayed the legitimate hopes of so many so thoroughly. In all of its essentials — the killing of civilians, restriction of personal and professional liberty, the subjugation of all state institutions to the whim of an executive branch that disregarded even the most cursory adherence to such fundamental principles as human rights and due process —?the Aristide government deserved to be overthrown as much as any in Haitian history. He took a generation of desperately poor slum children whose heads were filled with idealistic notions about changing their country, put weapons into their hands and turned them into killers.
That view also fails to take into account political realities with which Aristide had to deal: the expectations he had aroused; his weakness as a politician; the real extent of his control over events; his legitimate fear of another military coup. None of this is seriously examined.
When in 1994 Aristide promised the Americans he would liberalise the Haitian economy, complete with large-scale privatisation, mass layoffs, and tariff reductions (all things he opposed and which he believed would increase the suffering of the people he wanted to help), perhaps it was simply to get himself back into power, as Deibert assumes. But might he have felt that failing to return to Haiti at all would be an even worse betrayal?
Perhaps the atrocities committed by the notorious chimère gangs, successors of the Tontons and the FRAPH attachés, were indeed Aristide’s intention and even under his full control. But perhaps when he dragged his feet over those economic reforms, angered the merchant class and the Americans, and lost his financial aid, more violence became inevitable. Change was blocked. He had disbanded the army, so there were plenty of idle young men hanging around, more familiar with weaponry and thuggery than with job-hunting. (Paul Bremer produced a similar effect in Iraq.) There were zealots only too pleased to work on mobilisation, enforcement, and protection for party apparatchiks on either side. They loved their guns and their machetes. It is not hard to see how quickly things could spin out of control.
Certainly, Aristide’s political ineptitude was as obvious as his opponents’ determination to bind him hand and foot. After the OAS made a huge stink about vote-counting in 2000, and Aristide refused a re-run, perhaps fearing a trap, opposition groups set up a “parallel government” which successfully produced a stalemate. Nothing could be done in the assembly, no one would accept Aristide’s belated overtures; political deadlock ensued for four years. To nobody’s surprise (except perhaps Deibert’s), violence steadily increased on both sides: assassinations, brutalities, an assault on the National Palace that was never explained. Every move entangled Aristide further in the web.
From the summer of 2002, beset by a virtual civil war, the president seemed to have no idea what to do. The gangs were out of control. His oratory was feeble, his political programme hopelessly compromised. And eventually there was one assassination too many, one blood-letting too many, and the “Cannibal Army” of Gonaïves was joined by wild men like Guy Philippe and Louis Chamblain who had been lurking over the border in the Dominican Republic, and began to march.
But Deibert does not concede that a political process of this sort might have driven Aristide to his downfall. He has only one idea: it was all due to the man’s flawed and perhaps wicked nature.
One of [Aristide’s] greatest flaws as a leader was always his inability to think beyond the expediency of the moment and so, despite whatever ramifications it might have for the future for flaring higher [sic], any movement against him must be stopped immediately even, or perhaps especially, if it came from Haiti’s poor majority. One of Aristide’s main psychological quirks was that, as he saw himself as the only possible legitimate representative of the victimised Haitian underclass, any criticism of him was by extension a criticism and attack on that whole group of victims which he saw himself as exemplifying, and he was willing to go to any lengths to snuff out any challenge to this self-perception.
But the most serious defect in Deibert’s narrative is his almost total indifference to the possibility of external meddling. The US strategy for dealing with revolutionary and reforming regimes in the Americas is a matter of record. No serious journalist in the Caribbean can afford to ignore it.
And the events of 1994–2004 do have a familiar ring to them. That row over vote-counting for the May 2000 assembly elections, for example, had the interesting effect of denying legitimacy to Aristide’s entire second presidency. It made the withholding of half a billion dollars of international aid so much easier, and that in turn denied Aristide any chance of delivering the change he had promised, and lost him much of his credibility.
Aristide’s defenders think that the dispute was manufactured: that the OAS election observers objected vehemently, after the event, to a vote-counting procedure that they already knew about, and which was unlikely to affect the outcome anyway. Deibert dismisses this. He doesn’t even consider the possibility of US funding for, or influence over, the violent opposition, or the significance of names like Roger Noriega or Luis Moreno, which have turned up before in other interesting situations.
Nor does he find it remarkable that, when Aristide fell in February 2004, arrangements for the succession were already in place. A three-man “commission” selected seven eminent “wise men” who in turn selected an interim prime minister, a man who turned out to be immediately available in Florida and was on duty in less than two weeks. The chief justice became a ceremonial-style president, and American and French troops were on the ground within three days. What a marvel of efficiency in this havoc-strewn place!
And then there is Aristide’s controversial resignation letter. It was written in kweyol, and there are at least two translations in circulation. One states that he is resigning, the other that he will resign “if” this will help avoid bloodshed. The latter seems to be the more faithful translation, though the former is the one publicly quoted. Whether this letter was written freely or under duress is unprovable. Where the original is, no one seems to know; Deibert does not say where he got his text.
Accounts of Aristide’s actual departure differ too. Was it voluntary or not? Was he hustled out in handcuffs by marines and put on a plane when he thought he was going to a local radio station? Or did he beg the US ambassador for a plane, and accept an escort of kindly American troops anxious about his comfort and safety? And once aboard, did anyone bother to tell him where he was going until shortly before he was disembarked in Bangui in the Central African Republic?
Despite these uncertainties, Deibert presents the US narrative more or less as his own, with unswerving confidence, without scepticism, and as a simple matter of fact. Aristide was undone by his own corruption and violence; he fled willingly and eagerly to save his neck. That’s the story. If you disagree, if all this reminds you of a classic destabilisation exercise, you are simply in denial.
Sometimes this book groans under the weight of its detail and its indignation. Deibert is no stylist, and the awkward disparity between personal testimony and index-card compilation is a problem he has not solved. Much of the detail that clogs up the text might have been better presented as a timeline; a glossary of names and acronyms would also have helped. Poor proofing and some dubious fact-checking mar the text: if Aristide was twenty-one in 1974, for example, how did he manage to be only twenty-five in 1982 (p 25)? No wonder the man looks so young.
I wish I could trust Deibert more. The problem is not so much his conclusions as his method; not his sincerity, but his emotional need to condemn. I wish he had been just a little curious about Aristide the man, and a lot more scrupulous about his sources. I wish he had either produced sufficient evidence to back his indictment, or found the courage to say he doesn’t have it. I wish he had let events speak for themselves, without the editorialising, the anger, and the emotionally charged language. Because that makes the book feel partisan. A well-referenced scepticism would have been so much more useful, both to this fractured country, and to the many other people who love it, though in different ways and with different conclusions.